Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Quite a surprising opinion in the Financial Times, which, despite I'm sure its ironic intention (though do you sense some genuine frustration from the author?) nails it :

It may go behind the paywall, so I'm going to quote it entirely because an extract doesn't do justice to the shape of the whole :

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There was something truly depressing about last weekend’s TUC-sponsored mass march against public spending cuts. Some 250,000 people ambled through London, picnicked in Hyde Park, listened to Ed Miliband and totally ruined the day for the serious violent minority who were trying to smash things up.

You only had to look at the coverage the next day to see the damage they had done. News reports cut away from the havoc at Fortnum & Mason to show thousands of law-abiding public sector workers wasting their Saturday afternoon. Later that day Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, rounded on the rioters who had upset his otherwise genteel protests. Next week, he’ll be on the radio wondering how ministers can ignore such a potent display of political passivism.

For it does seem a basic rule of modern British democracy that if you are marching against something you’ve already lost. Parading one’s discontent through London is the political equivalent of a fly bashing its head against a window pane. Of course there’s a terrific sense of community on a march – 250,000 flies with the same headache; it’s hugely empowering. But short of handing out placards with slogans such as “Mildly Miffed” or “I’m so angry I walked peacefully through London”, it is hard to imagine what more the protesters could have done to signal their acceptance of defeat.

Like the suicide RAF mission of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s sketch, it is the futile gesture that makes everyone feel better. One imagines the heroic marchers being interviewed many years later for one of those wretched Reunion programmes they run on Radio 4 when Kirsty Young is on holiday. “Well I just didn’t want to be one of those who sat idly by, Sue. I wanted to be able to look my children in the face and say I did something.”

“So when the Tories were slashing budgets and ratcheting up your college fees, your mother and I marched through London.”

“Did you smash anything up, Daddy?”

“No, but we listened to a speech by the political editor of the New Statesman.”

It’s irresponsible to admit it, but this kind of peaceful protest is pointless. The system has all the shock absorbers necessary to handle a law-abiding demonstration. The next day ministers were already clear they would ignore the entire event, while insisting that they would be happy to discuss the issues with marchers, though sadly not over tea at Fortnum’s as it seems to be attracting the wrong sort these days.

It’s not that I’m advocating violence and disorder, just dispassionately noting that in Britain it is more effective. What last weekend’s thugs grasped is that ministers can’t ignore anarchists daubing the Cenotaph and bringing a bit of havoc to the capital. Once or twice they might be able to turn on the rioters, but not if it keeps happening. There’s nothing like stoking voters’ fears about the rule of law and the fabric of society to get the government’s attention.

You have to think of this in management terms. On key deliverables peaceful marching just doesn’t cut it. It’s all inputs and no outputs. But violent protest can be measured on key performance indicators. How many shops did you smash up? What percentage were banks? Did you manage to scare the Duchess of Cornwall? I’m sorry Dave; you are below target; do you want to nip over the road and vandalise that RBS?”

If you actually want to change things lawfully, you don’t march; you campaign; you write to your MP. Politicians pay quite staggering attention to their postbag. A lot of letters on a subject is all it takes to worry them and their definition of a lot is, well, really rather little ... A dozen letters will do it. I’m talking genuine letters, here, not the identical ones organised by campaigns.

But there’s no cred in writing to your MP. And that’s the point. Marching is as much about the marchers as it is about the cause. It’s about their need to feel they are doing something; something responsible; something lawful – something futile that makes them all feel better.


Oli said...

Zizek expressed similar sentiment about the million strong anti-Iraq war march, and I think they are (sadly) both right to question the value and purpose of such marches.

Personally I'm thinking that we don't just need the right to repeal a single MP, we ought to have a clear process for forcing a national referendum on a given subject. Something like if 1% of the voting population sign a petition, then the govt must put the issue to a national referendum.

Of course, this would work best if both the petition and the referendum were online/mobile so that this could be done quickly and cheaply. And, of course, setting the question of a referendum is always a loaded process (so maybe the questions should be set by a cross-party committee), but I'm very disillusioned with the state of our current, very limited democracy.

We ought to be making much more radical improvements than simply (possibly) switching to AV.

Scribe said...

Thanks for posting that Phil, definitely hooks into stuff I've been trying to figure out recently.

Will try to blog some more thoughts on it all soon. There's some interesting aspects to this beyond direct power and politic.